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The undemocratic flaw in our elections

Blair Bobier // Published May 23, 2008 in The Oregonian

Oregonians are rightfully reveling both in our newfound relevance in national politics and in our increased voter turnout, especially among younger voters. One aspect of the recent election, however, should give us pause: those races in which the majority of voters cast their ballots for losing candidates. This undemocratic flaw in Oregon's electoral process infected races ranging from the county level to the U.S. Senate, where, in each case, the winning candidate won with less than a majority of the vote.

These seemingly contradictory results are the product of state election laws that do not require that a candidate earn a majority (50 percent plus one) of the vote to win, but only a plurality (more votes than anyone else received).

To ensure that elected officials have the support of a majority of voters, some cities, including Portland, require runoff elections when no candidate has earned a majority. These runoffs require that cities administer two elections and demand that candidates mount two separate campaigns. Both are expensive propositions.

Fortunately, there is an efficient and elegant solution. Almost 100 years ago, on June 1, 1908, the people of Oregon approved a ballot initiative to amend our constitution to allow "preference voting." This 100-year-old election reform, now used around the world, was the product of the same progressive era that produced women's suffrage, our famed initiative process and the direct election of U.S. senators. Today, preference voting is commonly known as "instant runoff voting" and is used to elect city officials in San Francisco, the president of Ireland, officeholders throughout Australia and student government leaders on a number of college campuses in Oregon.

Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference -- first choice, second choice, third choice and so on -- instead of voting for just one candidate. If a candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, that candidate wins, and the election is over. If no candidate wins a majority, then the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and a runoff is conducted immediately taking into account the second-choice votes on the ballots cast for the eliminated candidate.

Instant runoff has many advantages. It can save cities money by eliminating two-round runoffs, and it ensures that the winner of an election, at any level, has the support of a majority of voters. But there are more subtle benefits as well. In San Francisco's 2004 election, when that city used instant runoff voting for the first time, The New York Times reported that it resulted in an astonishing level of cooperation and civility among candidates, who recognized that the election method required them to court the second-choice votes of voters who supported their opponents. Can you imagine what effect that might have had on, say, the Republican race for Congress in the 5th District? Might Kevin Mannix and Mike Erickson have employed entirely different strategies if they knew that the votes of those supporting their opponents were critical to their own potential victory?

Oregon is famous for many "firsts" and, unbeknownst to many, is the first state in the union -- and the only one -- to enshrine preference voting in its constitution. Implementing this innovative election method would honor the will of the voters -- those who voted 100 years ago and those who voted on Tuesday.

Blair Bobier teaches political science at Western Oregon University and is programs director of the nonpartisan Civics Education League.